I have had the opportunity to watch about two and a half hours worth of lecture about the fall of the Roman empire, by someone who wanted to draw parallels with the modern day Western society, and it was quite frightening.
The first parallel that was drawn was the increasing intervention in the lives of the ordinary citizens by the state. In my lifetime we have gone from local councillors being unpaid with no expenses and council meetings being held in the evenings so that an ordinary person could be a councillor in his or her spare time to the present day where being a councillor, especially if one has any authority over any part of council spending, is a part time or even a full time job, and for some a step on the political career ladder. If it is a career, how can serving as a councillor simply be a public service?
The second point was that because government is seeping into every corner of life with regulations, life becomes more expensive. It is expensive for the citizens who have to comply with more and more numerous regulations, and government itself is more expensive leading to a greater demand for resources to be transferred from the productive to the public sector.
To pay for their current schemes, governments routinely borrow. whether this is the plundering of the National Insurance Fund by governments of all hues and party affiliations, including the chancellor of the Exchequer who set the whole thing up in the first place, David Lloyd George, or by debasing the currency. The Romans did this by reducing the silver content of the denarius, the standard coin for trade from 95% during the kingdom to eventually 0.02% by the 5th Century AD in the empire, or by the central bank planning to maintain inflation so that the real amount that has to be repaid when the debt becomes due is much less than the amount borrowed. Think Wiemar republic in Germany in the 1920s and 1930s and you see what I am talking about in a shortened time frame. Nowadays the economists call it “monetary easing” but the problem is still the same, a debasement of the currency.
Because government is more expensive, more people have to be taxed and taxed at a higher rate to pay for the government. This leads to two economic problems. The rich can simply move to lower tax and less rigourlously monitored regulatory regimes or move over to the other side of the border of the empire, as Ford were planning to do with a proposed car plant in Mexico instead of Dearborn MI, or did with the production of Transit vans in Europe from Southampton, England to Turkey. This reduces the tax base and increases the tax rates for those who cannot move. The other problem is the amount of time and effort that is put into avoiding taxation and regulation with complex tax avoidance schemes and regulatory avoidance by using self-employed subcontractors rather than employees to do work, so getting round both health and safety and employment law.
Initially, citizens are not too unhappy to pay the little tax demanded in return for a safe place in which to live and the freedom to work at their chosen occupations, but after the increasingly onerous demands both monetary and regulatory, the state becomes resented, leading to the most productive members of the society moving outside that state’s jurisdiction.
With increasing wealth comes increasing life expectancy, and parents are willing to cut the size of their families. This reduces the size of the working population relative to the people receiving welfare and is yet another incentive for the state to increase the rate of taxation. It also leads to a demand for immigration, for immigrants to do those occupations that native born citizens either cannot or will not do. Sometimes the immigrants were welcomed for no other reason than they will increase the tax base. These immigrants, in the case of Rome were the Visigoths who did not share the same values as the indigenous Romans, and this was to lead to tensions within a relatively short period of time.
There is also a change in the sort of heroes that people have. When once those heroes were people who had performed particularly brave deeds or invented something valuable, they became artists; painters, sculptors, actors and singers.
I leave it to my readers to consider the parallels with modern Western society.